Incentives Matter

You may have seen the contention that Pete Maravich would have averaged 57 points a game in his collegiate career if only there had been a three-point shot. That is up 13 from the (remarkable) 44 he did average, so that means he would have to make 13 three-pointers per game.

Now, given that the NCAA record for three-pointers per game is currently five-and-a-half or so for a full season, this seems absurd. Maravich, for an entire career, was going to average two-and-one-half times the current season record pace?! When we learn that it was a former LSU (Maravich's school) basketball coach (Dale Brown) that made this claim, our scepticism may grow. But it is contemplating incentives that really debunk this idea. Let us say Brown's charting of Maravich's shots was completely accurate, and it really is true that 13 of his shots per game were from behind where the three-point arc is today. Think of the defense! With no three-point shot, they are reasoning, "Well, better to have Maravich shoot from way out there and hit 40% against us than to go out and cover him, have him drive around us, and hit 50%." Once you add an extra point per long shot made, that calculation changes dramatically. Now, the defense is thinking, "If we let Maravich take open three-pointers, he averages 1.2 points per shot. If we make him drive, he averages 1 point per shot. Get out and get a hand in his face!"

In other words, Brown ran his analysis as if institutions (and the incentives they create) don't matter. But they matter a lot. (Note that Maravich would also be more motivated to take long shots with a three-point shot available to him.)


  1. Rarely do I feel the slightest regret that I know nothing about sports. This is one of the exceptional times. But I can deal with it: Stuff me with caviar, find me a teenage nymphomaniac, and I'll be fine again.

  2. Speedy recovery, Wabulon!


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